An Ill-Advised Rant on the Next Console Cycle

These are my gut reactions to the XBox One press conference. Forgive me if I can’t predict the future. 

People predict that this next console cycle will be the last of its kind due to the proliferation of alternative distribution methods like Steam and iOS, and that might be true with the advent of cloud computing. Outsourcing the number-crunching to powerful remote servers and having the console act only as a client for playing these games means that the only upgrades that need to be made are to those remote servers, nullifying the need to upgrade every few years. I’m excited.

Square box with sharp edges. Bleh.

That said, I can’t help but be incredibly disappointed at this morning’s XBox One reveal. Aside from its ugly design that would have been acceptable only in the early 2000s, the preoccupation with television other traditional forms of entertainment sets it up for failure. Fewer and fewer people are watching television and prefer to catch series through channels like iTunes, Youtube, and Netflix, formats that suit our increasingly busy lives and schedules. I mean, consider a number of my friends from film school, most of their goals don’t lie in theaters or TV screens, but in web series and internet video. To focus on traditional, centralized methods of media production sets us back. In essence, the XBox One is just trying to be an uglier DVR, while it is nice to have a centralized place to access all our entertainment options, I think we’re missing the point here.

 Which brings us to games.

Aside from cloud computing’s power to advance the big-budget AAA games, it would seem that indies will be the deciding factor for who wins the so-called “console war”.

Let’s back up a bit, previous generations were never decided by console specs, they were decided by price and exclusives. Consider the Wii’s $250 launch price and the casual revolution that it started, and compare it to the PS3’s incredible processing power locked away behind system architecture so problematic that the 360 ended up consistently getting the best version of a multiplatform game. Point is, the complexity and power of a console isn’t going to make too much of a difference in how this console cycle plays out.

Furthermore, another change owes itself to the “Ludus Florentis” phenomenon that I pointed out in my previous post. Consumers are beginning to get tired of the big-budget AAA games, and instead of dropping $60 on a highly anticipated blockbuster, people are beginning to prefer to put that same money to purchase a variety of downloadable games, the success of Journey, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, and The Walking Dead prove this. Simply put, its not the console that has access to the most anticipated exclusives that will dominate this next generation, but the one that has the strongest indie-outreach program and online storefront.

Nintendo and Sony both recognized this change and made aggressive pushes to their plans for downloadable games. Sony made their massive indie kick by reformatting their storefront and adopting a familiar PC-like architecture for the PS4, as well as completely eliminating their developer registration fee. Nintendo made theirs by releasing the HTML5 based Nintendo Web Framework for the WiiU and opening up their submission process. As a result, the registration and development process for these consoles will be comparable to what already exists with Desura or the App Store, which can only mean good things for the diversity of games that will exist on these platforms. The XBox One’s preoccupation with the Call of Dutys and EA Sports of the world will probably make them increasingly irrelevant as the cycle plays out, which is disappointing, considering the wealth of great indie games like Bastion that owe their existence to XNA this generation.

Technology!

But more than anything else, what concerns me about this next generation are development costs. Both press conferences in the past few months marketed incredible graphical fidelity, pushing amazing texture resolution and ridiculous polycounts for each model in a game’s world.

This’ll mean bad things for games.

Art assets are one of the most time and resource consuming components of game development, already, asset production is outsourced to outside studios for many AAA games. Increasing the graphical fidelity of each asset in a 3D game world will only continue to bloat development costs and increase the level of damage done to a studio should a project fail.

Furthermore, games seem to market “emotional storytelling and characterization” with the graphical fidelity of these games. Strangely enough, “emotional” seems to have become a new buzzword in the odd era that we exist in at this moment.

But graphics don’t mean anything for emotional resonance.

The Walking Dead

Games are games, and achieve their meaning through play. The scarf-restoring cuddling and momentary escape from gravity connected to each jump in Journey made it such a compelling experience. The narrative weight lent to each dialogue option in the low-fi Walking Dead made one of the most emotionally intense games I’ve ever played. Graphical beauty didn’t make these games emotionally powerful, great ludic design did.

If anything, I’m intrigued by what this next console generation has to offer. Ludus Florentis opened up Steam, mobile, and cloud-based games to an unprecedentedly wide audience and diversified the kinds of games that could exist and succeed. The effects of what happened in these alternative spheres will mean a lot to how this next generation plays out.

And I want to try the Ouya.

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Thinking about the Playstation 4

Gut reactions! Bullet points!

Killzone 4
  1. Are we reaching the point where graphics can get no better? The visual leap between console generations is far subtler than in previous cycles. Adding polygons for each notch in a character’s skin and every strand of his hair is going to make AAA games more time-consuming to do. 
  2. Will the need for more sophisticated visuals in games drive up development costs and increase the size of development teams? This will ultimately reduce the number of AAA games that succeed and lead to studio closures and cancelled projects.
  3. Here’s hoping that Sony continues to do its great work in the alt-indie space by supporting devs like Quantic Dream, Giant Sparrow, and thatgamecompany.
  4. Its hard to get excited about hardware right now when in only a year or two consumer PCs will have similar hardware at a fraction of the price. For me, the main draw to console gaming is the social experience of vegging out on a couch with friends in front of a huge screen.
  5. Smart call removing used games restrictions. Bad call removing backwards compatibility. I don’t want to rebuy my games over PSN.
  6. Cloud gaming is overrated, especially for people in areas with slow internet service. Slow internet will effectively shut out a huge number of people from the next generation.
  7. I sure hope the submission process for PSN Indie Games is simple and that the API for developing games is simple and easy to learn. Microsoft did a huge favor for the world by encouraging indie game development with XNA, Sony should consider doing to same.
  8. Maybe Nintendo was right seven years ago when they said that we’re eventually going to reach a point where increased processing power can no longer account for new gameplay experiences. I mean, many of the best games of last year had minimalistic graphics, The Walking Dead, The Unfinished Swan, Journey. Minecraft has weak technical graphics and its already one of the best games out there. I played a bit of Far Cry 3 and felt that it focused too much on spectacle.
  9. Here’s one for new interfaces like motion, touch, and virtual reality.
  10. I haven’t seen any game at the conference that I can get really excited about. Destiny looks kinda cool from an artistic perspective and I’ve adored Bungie’s visual direction, but I can’t really get into the whole “pervasive transmedia-franchise” thing. Time will tell. What I do wish was there at the conference was The Last Guardian, since that dog-goat-eagle thing is friggin’ adorable. Watch Dogs also looks fantastic.
  11. What about support for 3D visuals or 4K resolution? Jumping from 480p to 1080p was a huge visual jump and meant a lot for how impactful games can be. Staying at 1080p seems like a missed opportunity.
  12. Wondering what gameplay experiences the touchpad on PS4 can create. Touch is an incredibly powerful interface and accounted for the success of the DS and modern mobile gaming. If its used in an interesting and creative way, huge potential for great new experiences can be tapped.
  13. People say that this eighth console cycle might be the last. Given how much movement exists with in the industry, the contracting scale of AAA development, and all the new forms of games that we’ve seen over the past few years, that’s probably going to be true. Don’t be sad over this, an exciting new future is about to be built. Be hopeful.
  14. This is actually the most incredible piece of technology I’ve ever seen. Its incredible how they squeezed such incredible machinery into such a tiny device.